In the US, where I reside, June 14th was Flag Day, meant to be a day we honor the American flag. Instead, let’s use that as a pretext to consider what the chances are for each of the teams in the AFL to win the flag, and I don’t mean the American stars and stripes.
Melbourne (bye) lead the comp – they’ve beaten the Bulldogs by 28, the Lions by 22, the Tigers by 34, the Swans by nine, and the Cats by 25. Barring major injuries, Melbourne has established themselves as the top club on several levels in 2021. Until one of the top six or eight give them trouble, they’re the favourite.
The Western Bulldogs (vs Geelong, away) were decisively beaten in Round 11 by the Demons and must be competitive in their rematch to remain co-favourite, no matter how they play against everyone else. They don’t have to win the rematch, but they must look as if they could have, or else there’s no reason to think anything will change when they meet in one of the last two games of the season – and they will.
We have them as four-point favourites over the Cats, even at GHMBA Stadium, according to the ELO-Following Football rating system. If we’re wrong and the Cats win at home by anything more than the home-field advantage of about a goal or so, then the Demons will be alone in the favourite category, at least until the Round 20 rematch with the 2016 premiers.
The Geelong Cats (vs Western Bulldogs, home) played their way into third choice with the win on Friday over Port despite the arduous travel conditions. But as formidable as they’ve been, these two contests over six days – hosting the Dogs as four-point underdogs, and the rematch with the Lions at the Gabba on the following Friday – will determine whether they belong in the tier above this or not. Either way, they then get to coast until a Round 23 pre-final versus Melbourne.
The Brisbane Lions (vs North Melbourne, away), excluding the weak opening three games that ended in a one-point defeat of Collingwood, have won every game decisively except for road contests versus the two favourites which they lost by about 20.
Their game in Round 15, hosting an in-form Geelong, will go a long way towards deciding who the true no.3 in this league is heading down the stretch. As for this week’s game versus the Kangaroos? Brisbane’s favoured by 58 points over North, so wagering is immaterial. As long as they don’t play to a draw.
Richmond (bye) dropped to 7-6 at their delayed bye week after a loss to West Coast. They nevertheless are comfortably within the eight and, with the crunchtime experience at the goal-mouth of the season, that will prevent them from being discounted until they’re officially out of the running in September. They’ve gone 1-3 against the four teams already listed (who they played over a five-week span), but they only have repeat games versus the Cats and Lions and miss similar games against Melbourne and the Bulldogs as they (hopefully) continue towards full health.
While it’s hard to picture the Tigers as the favourite in any finals game beyond the first one playing on the road, it’s also impossible to deny them the respect of being called a contender until they either miss the eight or are eliminated in finals.
Port Adelaide (vs Gold Coast, away) have proven consistently that they are one step below the teams above them, no matter what record they pile up against the rest of the league.
Let’s look at their results so far: defeated North Melbourne, defeated Essendon, lost to West Coast, defeated Carlton, defeated St Kilda, defeated Adelaide, defeated Collingwood and defeated Fremantle – looks good! Oh, and also: defeated a depleted Richmond by just two points at home; lost to Brisbane by 49; lost to the Bulldogs by 19 and to Geelong by 21. Not a premiership resume.
They will almost certainly be in the top eight, and they’ll certainly deserve to be. But they will need to defeat Melbourne in Round 17 or the Bulldogs in Round 23 (assuming the Dogs play a real line-up) to convince anyone that they’re a real threat in the finals this season. They are a threat to Gold Coast, though, and are favoured by 18 in our system.
If the West Coast Eagles (bye) are to even make finals, they’ll have to function adequately away from Optus Stadium. As of today, we see them finishing in eighth with GWS and possibly Essendon or Fremantle right on their heels. Even if percentage gives them the edge, their elimination final will be on the road against a better team in Port, Richmond, Geelong or Brisbane.
There’s no advantage to them for making finals this year. Ah, but next season? No – there really isn’t any great improvement on the horizon for this team.
The only reason the Eagles are listed as a ‘long shot’ rather than a ‘no shot’ is the possibility that the lack of ‘shots’ in arms will force the AFL to make Optus the finals hub that Queensland was last season. If West Coast gets de facto home field advantage for every game, including the grand final, they’ve got a puncher’s chance – we should call it a Bulldogs’ chance! – of winning in every game it plays, and crazier momentum stories have played out in September. Ask the Fitzroy side of 1916.
The Sydney Swans (bye) sit at a surprising 8-5 and, with the schedule sitting in front of them now, going 5-4 will get them into finals comfortably.
In fact, that’s still where we’re seeing them finish after their upset loss to the Hawks this weekend. Their last five games in order are hosting Freo, then three games versus Essendon, St Kilda, and North all at Marvel Stadium (COVID willing) and hosting Gold Coast.
Those five alone might all be wins for the Swans, if their youngsters can stay strong and focused that deep into a 22-game season. Regardless, all of their best players under 960 career goals are in their twenties, and they could be improving every year for the next five, especially if Horse stays as senior coach.
Across town, the GWS Giants (vs Carlton, home, favoured by the ELO-FF system by just two but we like them to win) have a good shot at finishing in the top eight, but would need a 2016 Bulldog run of luck to do anything with that opportunity.
However, the injuries to their remaining elder statemen this season means that they’ve had the opportunity to test their youth under fire and found some pure gold among the charcoal and orange flames.
Of the dozen players who have appeared in at least 11 of the 12 games so far this season, only Callan Ward is among the 15 oldest on their list!
The next oldest is Josh Kelly at 26! Discount Ward, and the other 11 average under 22 years of age! The two missing just two games in 2021 are Toby Greene and Sam Taylor, who are only 27 and 22 themselves. You get the picture. This team has set itself up for – well, for another financial crisis in 2027, but that’s not the concern right now! They’ll be a threat in 2022, 2023, and so forth.
What about Essendon? (Favoured by 21.5 by ELO-FF over Hawthorn) have some talent in their stable; Darcy Parish, Zach Merrett and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti all received some votes for the mid-season All Australians, and we have all three in the top 100 at the midpoint as well (along with Jordan Ridley and Andrew McGrath). But, unlike the Giants, the only players under 23 who have even reached a full season of games in their career are 22-year-olds Brayden Ham and Jordan Ridley.
The one hope this team has is to hit the trade season correctly for once, similar to what the Bulldogs did coming into 2021. They’ve been aggressive in going out to find the missing pieces as they see fit, and there’s always a chance that they’ll hit it right for once. If they do, there’s no reason that Essendon couldn’t manage their own version of the Bulldogs 2021 redux. Because there’s no way to forecast when that might happen, we won’t guess a particular year – it’ll just happen someday, we hope.
Fremantle (bye) seem to have the potential under the new regime to put things together and, while it will quite probably take beyond the ends of the careers of David Mundy, Stephen Hill, Michael Walters and even Nat Fyfe, there could be a flag in Fremantle’s future – 2026, perhaps?
The Adelaide Crows (bye) also have shown the potential to rebound from their devastation last year very quickly. However, unlike clubs like Freo, the Crows have demonstrated the ability to dart upwards over the years, so with the right breaks (the equivalent of a reverse Patrick Dangerfield move, for example), Adelaide could be back in contention for the flag within three years. Or not. Maybe Matthew Nicks has to play the long game and bring these Crows along slowly.
Can North Melbourne (vs Brisbane, home) pull a Brisbane themselves? They have most of their best players in the same generation, except for Jack Ziebell and Todd Goldstein, so it’s conceivable they would make the same five-year ascension that Brisbane took. That would put the Kangas in the 2026-28 window for flag contention. But, in 2021, the Lions are favoured in the ELO-FF system by 58.5 points, so just take the visitors to win big.
I have eternal hope for the Gold Coast Suns (hosting Port as three-goal underdogs) and have eternally been disappointed. But, like the Roos, their youth movement has the Suns with a window possibly coming around 2024 or 2025 if Matt Rowell, Ben King, Izak Rankine, Jack Lukosius and Noah Andersons can reach All Australian status before Alex Sexton, Touk Miller, Brandon Ellis and David Swallow get too far into the back ends of their careers.
Assuming they have the right coach, the Suns should become the new Lions before the Roos become the new Lions.
Carlton (visiting Giants Stadium as two-point underogs) have Sam Walsh and Harry McKay – but then again, they already had Patrick Cripps and Eddie Betts. They have David Teague – but then again, they once had Mick Malthouse. Is there any momentum this team has built that has lasted more than one season in the 21st century? I’m glad to see the women’s team succeeding, because for some reason the men’s team seems perpetually in the ninth-to-15th place wasteland.
Similarly, we’ll have to see some kind of culture change before St Kilda (bye) are going to do anything more than what they managed to do last year: a one-time leap into the lower half of finals, then a fall back into Carlton territory.
Hawthorn (hosting Essendon as 21.5 point underdogs) have no semblance of positive motion in 2021. Interpret the post-break burst of energy in Sydney as you see fit.
In the 21st century, that’s extremely unlike this club, and especially unlike an Alastair Clarkston team but, historically, there have been long stretches of floundering Hawks – after all, this club went 33 seasons before playing a single final in 1957. So seeing Hawthorn out of contention for an extended period of time would be nostalgic for those of us over 70 or so.
And then there’s Collingwood (bye). You might have heard they’ve had some issues recently. Predicting the outcome of the politics off the field, which will determine the outcome on the field, is everyone else’s job, not mine. Good luck, Pies.
By the way, Hawthorn vs Essendon is the first rematch of the season and, except for the emergency duplicate Western Darby last season when those two teams were restricted from travelling, the first rematch outside of finals in two years.
The only reason I bring it up is that we also track what we call the Once-Around Fixture which, for obvious reasons, is currently identical with the regular ladder. But for all of those people who regularly campaign for fixture reform, this has been something we’ve kept up every season since 2014, discovering in doing so that it’s rarely dissimilar to the 22-game ladder.
The one exception was the year North went 11-1 to start and 1-9 to finish: half of those latter games didn’t count on the Once-Around ladder since they were rematches, so North had a 12-5 record on this version and finished fifth or something like that.
And the less we talk about our tipping results from last week, the better.